There were three notable unethical performances last week from professionals who should know better:
I. Dr. Benjamin Carson, neurosurgeon. Carson was invited to give the keynote speech at the National Prayer Breakfast (don’t get me started about why there even is a National Prayer Breakfast, and why the President should feel obligated to attend it) last week and turned what is traditionally understood to be a non-partisan, non-political speech into a direct attack, without explicitly designating it as such, on President Obama’s policies. Yes, it was a well-written, well-reasoned and well-delivered speech, but it was an ambush. Many conservatives were pleased to have President Obama subjected to an articulate complaint that “spoke truth to power,” yet the objectives and specific content of the speech doesn’t matter: that wasn’t what Carson was invited to do, and it wasn’t what he should have done. Dr. Carson has subsequently justified his actions in self-congratulatory terms as an act of courage, but in reality it was an instance of a citizen seizing an opportunity to grab national attention and a prominent soapbox that weren’t his to grab. His actions made the President of the United States a captive audience to his amateur analysis of national affairs. It was disrespectful, and because it was given under false pretenses, dishonest.
2. Dr. Connie Mariano, former White House physician. Mariano, interviewed on a CNN newscast about the ever-popular topic of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s girth ( the puckish Guv had just mocked himself on David Letterman’s show by eating a donut on the air), opined that Christie’s weight was “… almost like a time bomb waiting to happen unless he addresses those issues before he runs for office,” Mariano told CNN. “I want him to run. I just want him to lose weight,” she said. “I’m worried he may have a heart attack. I’m worried he may have a stroke.” Christie told the press that Mariano was out of line, and that absent the opportunity to examine him, the doctor had no business offering a professional opinion and should “shut up.” He was absolutely correct, but the pundits were all over him, calling Christie “thin-skinned,” especially since he had opened the issue for media attention with his Letterman gag. I know this may be too subtle to grasp for the dolts in the media, but there is a material difference between a layman’s opinion about Christie’s weight and the opinion of a doctor, which will be presumed by the public to be authoritative. Mariano’s statement violated multiple ethics rules of her profession, and professional ethics principles generally. When a doctor opines that a named individual is at risk of a stroke, that is a diagnosis, and it is unethical to diagnose a patient without an examination and without the patient’s consent. Christie has his own doctor: Mariano was undercutting the care of that physician by publicly challenging his diagnosis even though Mariano had never seen a lab report or a blood pressure reading. Having made her incompetent diagnosis by photograph and television screen, Mariano then revealed it to the public at large before bothering to communicate with her “patient.” Christie was justified in being angry, and the media displayed its ignorance and bias in defending the Dr. Mariano. Dr. Mariano then compounded her offense by offering the unethical excuse that one doesn’t have to be a doctor to see that Christie is overweight. True, but she didn’t say that he was fat, or that people who are obese are at higher risk for health problems. She offered a professional opinion that Christie is personally at risk of having a stroke without knowing his health status, and that she may not do.
3. The panel of “Reliable Sources,” CNN’s media ethics program hosted by Howard Kurtz. The show no longer makes an effort at balance, and last Sunday’s episode was the worst I have ever seen. Once upon a time Kurtz attempted to select guests for objectivity and ethics expertise; no longer, apparently. His panel of Steve Roberts, Ryan Lizza, and Lauren Ashburn joined the reliably liberal-biased Kurtz in a united front. The nadir was reached when Kurtz criticized the news media for publicizing the accusation of an unidentified 16-year-old Dominican Republic prostitute that Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) had engaged in sex with her multiple times on his visits to the island. The panel all agreed, and agreed that in addition to the fact that the only source was anonymous, the reason the report wasn’t newsworthy was that it came from The Daily Caller, “a conservative website” that wasn’t a “reliable source.” This is naked partisan hackery. The ethical issue to be discussed should have been whether an accusation of consorting with under-age prostitutes is news when the accused is a U.S. Senator. The Daily Caller, which is the creation of former CNN pundit Tucker Carlson, is every bit as reliable as its equivalent websites to its left, like the Huffington Post (which panelist Ashburn writes for), Politico, and the site that pays Kurtz, The Daily Beast. The panel’s implication that “conservative” equals biased and unreliable is especially unfair, not to mention incredible, at a time when the venerable NBC news machine has been caught intentionally distorting video and audio recordings in pursuit of liberal agenda items. There are no “reliable sources” in the news media today, as a panel on a show called Reliable Sources should have the integrity to admit. Furthermore, if it was going to take this approach to the Menendez matter, integrity demanded that it try to distinguish for its audience the “reliable” media’s handling of anonymous accusations of sexual harassment against GOP presidential contender Herman Cain. Politico, which is, of course, more reliable than The Daily Caller because it approaches issues from the wise and rational perspective of the Left, launched a media feeding frenzy with a series of anonymous accusations that were reported on ad nauseum by every major media outlet and that ultimately sunk Cain’s candidacy. The Cain matter can’t be distinguished, though, because it was exactly as wrong and unfair as what is happening to Menendez. The issue is anonymous sources—like the Washington Post used to suggest that Rick Perry was a racist, for example—not the reliability of The Daily Caller.
The hackery of the Reliable Sources panel wasn’t over, however. Kurtz ran a video of Menendez being questioned (on the run) by a reporter about the prostitute’s accusation. Sen. Menendez scowled, said that the accusation was “unsubstantiated,” and proceeded to take the same partisan route nicely cleared by Kurtz’s panel, blaming the story on a vendetta by conservatives. Later, Kurtz and others on the panel noted that Menendez had “denied” the allegations. He may have denied the allegations elsewhere, but what was immediately striking about the video was that he did not deny them. He said they were unsubstantiated. Now, the most casual viewer of the various profiler shows on TV, as well as dramas like “Lie To Me” and “The Mentalist,” knows that when someone’s immediate reaction to a direct accusation is to deflect it rather than deny it, something may be amiss. The panel had two ethical choices: let the video stand for itself (Menendez looked and sounded guilty, in my estimation, but then he is one of the most unethical and corrupt members of the Senate, and has a lot to be guilty about), or note that there was no denial in response to the reporter’s direct question. Instead, the panel ran interference for the Democratic Senator, crediting him with an on-camera denial that he did not make.